February 2007

ruffed grouse tracks

Who does the grouse think she’s fooling, leaving a line of arrows in the snow that all point back in the wrong direction?

maple bark

What makes the bark of a growing maple lose its smoothness in concentric rings?

Top of First Field

What do porcupines think about when they see the sun scale the sky?

porcupine spruce

Is that why they’re mostly nocturnal — they don’t like the competition?

sapling

Will the trees have any memory of winter, or is it just a big blank?

__________

In case you haven’t noticed the link in my sidebar, I have a new photo gallery. (Thanks to H. Rutherford for the idea.)

I slept fitfully as the vacuum cleaner went back and forth above my head. Doors slammed, feet pounded down the stairs, furniture slid and rumbled on the hardwood floor. The same dream over and over like a skip in a record: me alone on the line for a four-in-the-morning rush, a blizzard of slips, drunks hollering for their omelettes. And then more shoes overhead, a boombox switched on — Kenyan dance music, loud — and the tromping becoming rhythmic, coordinated. The doorbell buzzing and buzzing. Damn, must be a party! Each of my housemates probably thought the other had told me.

Our paths did cross: in front of the T.V. in the living room, usually, where the more religious of the two would sit every morning in his robes, fresh from praying toward Mecca, to watch a chirpy female aerobics instructor while he sipped black tea. It’s good exercise, Dave! he’d insist, quite seriously, when I tried to tease him. The other, also named Salif, rarely hung out at home, except sometimes to make couscous stew in the kitchen and pound on my door whenever I played music he didn’t like, which was often.

I dragged out at ten, showered, and pulled on a ratty Metallica t-shirt and checkered, gray-and-white chef’s pants wide enough for a clown. I moved slowly, dreading what I knew I’d face upstairs: the entire African Students Association packed into our living room, dancing, glamorous, laughter in a dozen different languages suddenly falling silent as the hairy white guy emerged from the cellar, dressed for the graveyard shift.

I’m fascinated by people with slightly asymmetrical faces. When I say slightly, I mean, only really noticeable by looking at a photo, where it’s easy to verify your hunch by covering first one side and then the other with a piece of paper. The results of the comparison can be quite startling: we forget how often apparently harmonious and self-consistent images and narratives result from an unconscious blending of disparate parts. Just as it’s possible to become familiar with the Bible and never notice all the disparities between the first and second chapters of Genesis, so is it often the case that you can know somebody for years without noticing that one side of his or her face is significantly sadder-looking than the other. Or more troubled, or more thoughtful. Because that’s what I’m talking about here: faces in which the persistent, infantile positivism of our culture has been stalemated by a gloomier or more realistic cast of mind. At least, I think that’s what’s going on, but perhaps I’m reading too much into it. It may in fact be the case that all faces are at least slightly asymmetrical, in the same manner and to the same degree that their owners are right- or left-handed: one side is simply stronger than the other. The weaker side will tend to wear a more relaxed or cheerful expression, since — as motivational speakers are wont to remind us — it takes more effort (if not necessarily more muscles) to frown than it does to smile. But if that be the case, why would the asymmetry only be detectable for a certain, small percentage of the population? Do the rest of us somehow unconsciously correct for a default tendency toward asymmetry through complex feedback loops between our own facial expressions and those we see on others? If so, then the question becomes: why and how do certain people manage to escape the influence of such pervasive, unconscious social pressures? And why would the results of such nonconformity so often strike us as beautiful?

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, a district attorney blogs his cases, a schlocky Christian painter marks his territory like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and the overheard cellphone conversation of an animated mannequin makes the news.

Helena Christensen was in a state at the Chateau Marmont party. “I’m sitting here by my [bleeping] self in the lobby,” blared the tired and emotional supermodel into her cellphone. “Where are you? I had a bag with $500,000 worth of jewelry and someone took it!” Christensen’s rep says she later discovered that the bag — which actually contained a computer but no jewels — was in her car.

She must’ve been tired if she could confuse a computer with $500,000 worth of jewelry. Gosh!

[audio:http://www.fileden.com/files/2007/1/5/600283/Dont_Let_That_Deal_Go_Down.MP3]

One morning in late July, I had a vision of things from the inside-out: in lieu of a leaf, for example, I saw a two-walled room devoid of green. Bark no longer belonged to the tree, but to the air around it. All flesh was glass.

The elephant-sized boulders scattered through the woods no longer reminded me of anything final. I saw instead that they were tongues of pure thirst, slowly dissolving, giving rise to gray clouds. I sat in a space between three boulders and listened to a hermit thrush. It began to rain.

*

Imagine if, instead, I had caught a sudden glimpse of what that woods would look like just six months later. No vision can measure up to the reality of a northern winter: the ground’s smooth pelt, the deep blue sky, the appalling distances that can open between two trees.

*

You don’t need a grand vision to feel connected to the universe; you simply need to to be mindful of basic ecological principles. However much we may try to pretend otherwise, we are each a part of the food chain, temporarily undissolved pieces of meat in a cosmic digestive sytem. Therefore, in a very real sense, every state is an altered state. And even in the more figurative sense with which mystics or drug-takers talk about altered states of consciousness, the pleasure is in the transition, which can be prolonged and intensified by artifical means, but is still relatively fleeting.

What you get out of those transition states probably depends very much on what you bring to them. Don’t believe the wilder claims of the cannabis-boosters: smoking pot will not magically turn violent assholes into peaceniks; it will only make them temporarily a little less dangerous. Likewise, a simultaneous global orgasm might be amusing, in a guerilla theater kind of way, but it would not bring about world peace, any more than making everyone profess the same faith would. Building peace is hard work. Hell, just remembering to be kind to those you love is hard work. Good visions and good vibes probably help, but only a little.

*

Speaking of visions, be sure to catch Nathan’s story about his adventures as a vision-questing gringo in Mexico in the comment thread to the “cathedral” post. Start here.

This is a test of the Audio Player plugin for WordPress. (Feed and email subscribers will need to click through to the site to see the player, I think.) I’m reading a simple little poem I wrote last April, In a Nutshell.

[audio:http://www.fileden.com/files/2007/1/5/600283/In_a_Nutshell.MP3]

I don’t necessarily plan to abandon Odeo just yet, but it’s been a little buggy lately and I wanted another option in case it deteriorates further. Like the wren in the poem, I don’t want to leave anything to chance.

I wish more poets would try working in the past tense. I am tired of reading poems that rely on startling metaphors and present-tense immediacy for most of their effect. It begins to feel very formulaic and unearned. How about some genuine insight once in a while?

Novelist and blogger Richard Lawrence Cohen has a terrific little story that suggests how all those run-of-the-mill poems come about.

But conditioned reflex comes to the rescue. She knows how to write a poem. She knows how to trawl for a metaphor, how to stitch lines together with assonance and consonance (and the occasional alliteration, not too much), she knows how to intertwine nature images with love-memories and transcendent ideas. So here is Listen, the first word, followed by a colon, herding the reader with an authoritative bark. Here is wind in the next line, another short-i sound, and then lent to tie the l’s and n’s and short e’s through three lines. Here is blue forgiving the encroaching purple, forgiveness is always good, and linen-clad dandelions whisper together, with that l- n-short-vowel combo again, and personifying nature’s voice is a reliable tactic. She makes the gesture of a surprising epithet; she makes the gesture of a truncated line; she pays witty homage to a better-known colleague’s best-known poem.

To me, the most telling thing about the writing process as depicted in Cohen’s story is its origin in impulse and distraction, rather than in true attention to something outside the writer.

roof-snow slide

The weather’s been warm over the past few days, and the snow’s been melting fast. This morning, though, with below-freezing temperatures overnight, the snowpack was firm enough to support me on snowshoes. I was able to crunch along on the surface without breaking through, stepping over the shallow graves the sun had dug for dark twigs and leaves that had fallen on the snow.

I started out following some coyote tracks that must’ve been made late yesterday afternoon — the pads and claw-marks had only blurred a little. Then as I made my way up the ridgeside through the laurel, I started coming across wild turkey tracks so melted they were barely recognizable. I could just make out the backwards-arrow shapes deeply incised in the snow.

I reached the ridgetop trail and joined two, slightly less melted sets of turkey tracks headed in the same direction. The morning had started out sunny, but now the sky was growing steadily darker, and I hurried to get back before the rain started. I almost missed the pile of turkey feathers in the snow beside the trail. A set of canine tracks intersected with the turkey tracks and headed down over the other side of the ridge, more feathers scattered along the way. Score one for Wile E.

turkey feather

Cold rain began to fall less than a minute later. Striding down the hillside on top of the snow, I felt like I was walking in seven-league boots. I clattered into the house and bent down to unstrap from the snowshoes. When I straightened up again, huge snowflakes were swirling outside.

Now it’s late afternoon, and there’s still snow in the air. A cold front seems to be blowing in. Maybe winter isn’t done with us, after all.

*

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while — or if you’ve ever taken a look at my home page — you’ll know that I feel a special sense of kinship with the porcupine. So I was happy to see the great post on porcupines at Burning Silo last night (see also today’s follow-up post on porcupine quillwork).

There for a while this winter, I wasn’t seeing any sign of porcupines under or around my house. But one night last week, on my way down from my parents’ house, I heard a distinctive chewing sound coming from the pear tree. A large round shape clung to the topmost branches, silhouetted against the sky.

In the comments thread for Monday’s post, Nathan says, “I’m still trying to imagine what a warning label on a cathedral might say.”

WARNING: Contents under pressure of suspended disbelief. Do not puncture or agitate.
Do not stand under gargoyles during heavy rain.
Do not attempt to scale cathedral without proper climbing equipment.
If ascending bell tower with beautiful, unconscious gypsy maiden, keep one hand on the railing at all times.
Discontinue use of cathedral if any of the following symptoms occur: drowsiness, mild irritation, guilt, vertigo, hallucinations, ecstasy, bleeding of the palms, spontaneous human combustion.
Do not drink from, or launder intimate apparel in, baptismal font.
In case of prayer, make sure kneelers are in the down position. Please refer to special safety instructions on kneelers before use.
Do not stage-dive off altar during mass.
Do not circle structure counter-clockwise during electrical storm while chanting the Lord’s Prayer backwards.
In the event of an overflight by pigeons, cover head.
Do not remove buttresses, as walls may buckle.
Do not stand near windows in the event of an earthquake or theophany.
Failure to follow these rules may result in serious inconvenience or death.

Chris Hedges, the former New York Times reporter and author of the magisterial War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, is back with a new book, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War On America. He summarized his findings in a recent essay on Alternet. An accelerating “Weimarization of the American working class,” he wrote, has bred a “culture of despair,” which he describes with the same empathy he brought to bear in his writing about soldiers and war correspondents. If the essay is any indication, this sounds like another essential study from one of our few genuine contemporary prophets.

The stories believers such as Learned told me of their lives before they found Christ were heart breaking. These chronicles were about terrible pain, severe financial difficulties, struggles with addictions or childhood sexual or physical abuse, profound alienation and often thoughts about suicide. They were chronicles without hope. The real world, the world of facts and dispassionate intellectual inquiry, the world where all events, news and information were not filtered through this comforting ideological prism, the world where they were left out to dry, abandoned by a government hostage to corporations and willing to tolerate obscene corporate profits, betrayed them.

They hated this world. And they willingly walked out on this world for the mythical world offered by these radical preachers, a world of magic, a world where God had a divine plan for them and intervened on a daily basis to protect them and perform miracles in their lives. The rage many expressed to me towards those who challenge this belief system, to those of us who do not accept that everything in the world came into being during a single week 6,000 years ago because it says so in the Bible, was a rage born of fear, the fear of being plunged back into a reality-based world where these magical props would no longer exist, where they would once again be adrift, abandoned and alone.

The danger of this theology of despair is that it says that nothing in the world is worth saving. It rejoices in cataclysmic destruction. It welcomes the frightening advance of global warming, the spiraling wars and violence in the Middle East and the poverty and neglect that have blighted American urban and rural landscapes as encouraging signs that the end of the world is close at hand.